By Jeff Maisey
As far as craft breweries in Virginia go, Legend Brewing Company is a dinosaur amongst newly hatched ducklings.
Back in 1994, Tom Martin opened a small tasting room and served pub-style food in the Manchester section of Richmond – a Legend was born. Martin would later expand his operation to include a large-size brewery paired with a 180-seat tasting room bar/restaurant with a full service kitchen specializing in both traditional German and British fare. The outdoor deck, or Beer Garden, is famous for its view of the downtown Richmond skyline from across the James River.
Before SB-604 was passed in 2012, craft breweries were far and few between in Virginia. There were only two types of breweries allowed by law: a manufacturing-only facility or a brewpub (a brewery that also operated as a restaurant).
In 2006, there were an estimated 26 or so breweries operating in Virginia. Today there are 206 and counting.
The increase in craft breweries has presented both opportunities and challenges for Legend. First, the increase in the overall popularity of craft beer is good for the industry. That said the available shelf-space in grocery store and other retailers is limited. Same is true with restaurant tap handles available in an environment where the pressure is to rotate taps and try the latest beer released. While Legend has enjoyed widespread distribution throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia it sees the increased volume of competition as a serious threat to their traditional, tried-and-true brews.
One of the new trends to take root in Virginia is the satellite brewery business model. A craft brewery can open what is essentially a bar/tasting room anywhere within Virginia as long as it brews a small amount of beer on-site. These small batches are often deemed experimental beers and allows brewers to test-batch new recipes while receiving feedback directly from loyal customers. The model also allows the brewery to send beer directly from its main production facility to the satellite location by a process called a “brewery-to-brewery transfer,” which bypasses the local distributor. But that’s not quite what Legend had in mind when developing its very first satellite location – Legend Brewing Depot – in Olde Towne Portsmouth.
Legend is sticking with its food/kitchen and brewery concept, though the brewery will be a small, 3-barrel system. And, instead of trucking its core beers from Richmond to Portsmouth it is doing something unheard of – ordering through the local distributor.
Legend’s goal is to enhance its relationship with distributors while also increasing the visibility of its entire product line. Legend Brown Ale is known far and wide, but the brewery would like consumers to also try their Lager, Golden IPA, Porter, Pilsner, Z-dam, Belgian-style Tripel, and others. The idea is consumers will then request their favorite restaurant or retailer to carry the beer. It’s a promotional opportunity.
The kitchen philosophy deviates from the Richmond location in that The Depot will focus on seafood with a raw bar.
For the city of Portsmouth having a well-known, quality brewpub operating on the river-walk in Olde Towne is a great compliment to the nearby restaurants such as the Bier Garden and Roger Brown’s. Having the walkable, architecturally pleasing downtown serve as a beer and food destination will draw more locals through the tunnels, and this is likely to spur more growth in an area ripe with possibilities.
Legend Brewing Depot is located on the first floor of the historic, white, curved Seaboard Coastline Building. It was built in 1894 by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, which would later become CSX rail in 1978 after a merger with Chessie System.
Like Legend’s RVA location, the Depot in Portsmouth has a view from its outdoor patio of a downtown skyline – in this case Norfolk – from across a river.
While attending one of many soft opening events, I asked a variety of stakeholders a question or two regarding Legend Brewing Depot. The impromptu Q&As follow.
VCB: Can you tell us about the opportunity the Depot presents for Legend, being its first satellite location?
Legend’s Brewmaster of 23 years, John Wampler: It’s been a longtime coming. It gives us a chance to brew not only on a smaller system, but also for a different crowd. I think our name is pretty well known down here, and people are really excited about it.
Legend Vice President of Operations, Dave Gott: We’re looking at the way the market’s going right now with another five billion breweries opening up. Obviously, even with restaurants increasing the number of taps they have there’s still a finite number of beer drinkers out there. Everybody’s diluting the pool of beer drinkers. We’re looking at a strategy that’s basically opening places that are selling our beer only. We will continue to open places (brewpubs) that do food. We think people like to sit down to eat and drink. It also makes it a little more family oriented. We’re looking at markets that aren’t over-saturated and has something (a location) really neat. We’re not going into a strip mall. We’re into historical stuff and neat waterfront properties. Something with a beautiful view.
VCB: Will having a satellite outlet in Portsmouth increase Legend’s brand identity throughout Hampton Roads?
Wampler: Yeah, I think that will eventually happen that way.
Hoffman Beverage Company Craft Beer & Import Beer Manager, Greg White: I think it’s pretty important with the number of breweries that have opened up in the area over the last three or four years, and with the number of beers on the shelves. It’s becoming harder to distinguish yourself. Having a location in the Tidewater area where people can come and partake in the beer, see the brewing process, meet the brewers, the owner, it’s really important for the consumer to be able to identify with the brewery on a more personal level.
VCB: What is your brewing schedule for the 3-barrel system, which I understand will be producing sometime in late October?
Wampler: At this point we’re not exactly sure. We’re going to have at least two house-beers that we’ll brew here. I think we’ll do an Oyster Stout. We did one a few years ago with St. George. We’ll probably revisit that, and then something on the lighter side. We’ll do some experimental beers as well.
Gott: It’s nice to have a smaller system. You can play around a little more. It’s a lot less painful to dump three barrels of beer than it is 30 if you don’t like the way it turned out. We’ll do an oyster stout. We might even do a sour or two. All the beers brewed at The Depot will be proprietary beers for down here only. Hopefully it will draw people from all over. You’ll have beers here you can’t get anywhere else.
VCB: Can you explain the strategy of using the local distributor for receiving Legends core beers rather than doing a brewery-to-brewery transfer yourselves?
Wampler: We do what to keep a tight relationship with Hoffman. Our beers will then stay in their inventory so if a restaurant wants to pick them up in bottles or draft they’ll have ‘em in stock. I think everybody wins that way.
Gott: In Virginia you’re pretty much married to your distributor and there are no divorce laws. We figure that by working with the distributor it makes them part of it and gives them some skin in the game. It also brings all of our products into the market where distributors are cutting back on products. People (and businesses) that are interested in buying products that aren’t mainstream sellers can have them in their next delivery instead of waiting a month-and-a-half to go through a special order process.
White: I think it’s really neat. They’re one of the only breweries out there that have offered to do this. These guys respect the 3-tier system. They also respect the restaurants that sell their beer and they wouldn’t want to have what would be viewed as an unfair advantage being able to brew a beer and sell it at higher margins. They want to play by the rules that bar owners have to play by. So they buy the beer from us at the same cost as we sell to every other retailers.
VCB: Is this also a great way to introduce people to your Pilsner and other styles?
Wampler: The Pilsner came to mind when you started asking that. The Pilsner, Golden IPA, and all our seasonal. We’d like to get them more exposure.
Gott: The Pilsner is one of the products we want to focus on.
VCB: Why is the food concept different for Portsmouth?
Gott: It’s a smaller menu compared to Richmond. It’ll be heavier on the seafood. There’ll be a raw bar. Occasionally there’ll be some stout-boiled oysters.
VCB: How important is Legend Brewing Depot to your economic development team’s plan in luring more businesses to Olde Towne Portsmouth?
Portsmouth Mayor John Rowe: It’s very important. This is a destination. I had no idea of the magnitude of this place with its full-size kitchen, seating 149 folks, great beer, right on the busiest river in the United States. You can’t beat it. Our Economic Development specialist is here today and he’s swamped with people talking to him about High Street and it potential.
We’re developing quite a restaurant district in Olde Towne. People know Olde Towne by our restaurants here, like the Bier Garden.
Portsmouth Business Development Manager Robert Moore: We look at the brewpub as a destination. So like any destination you want something that brings them there, and now we’re working on those pieces around them. We have several restaurants downtown. We have a brewery downtown. We are anxiously awaiting on a distillery to come downtown. We want to make sure we have those other amenities in-between. This can truly be a live, work, play and enjoy yourself area.